For white men in 1975 to create a show about nouveau riche African Americans that resonated so well with the viewing public was a feat but it was the history of the popular sitcom, “The Jeffersons.” Back in those days, more than a few shows cast blacks as impoverished, downtrodden, or on the shady side of the law. In the 21st century, there seems to be a shift in the television landscape but the fact is non-Caucasian minorities are still underrepresented.
By The Numbers
In an investigative study done on one of the most prominent shows around, CSI: Crime Scene Investigations, African Americans represented between 6 percent and 19 percent of law enforcement and almost 70 percent of victims. In the city of Las Vegas, a little less than 40 percent of police officers and between 40 percent and 45 percent of victims were African American.
A published study on the portrayals of minority in prime time TV showed that 74 percent of actors were white, 16 percent were black, 5 percent were Latino and less than 2 percent were Asian. What’s more, the portrayal of these characters revealed that a majority of Latino characters depicted had heavy accents and were depicted as the least intelligent race, as compared to African Americans and whites.
Another stark point is that certain minorities are either repeatedly stereotyped or minority characters are whitewashed. One example is that in many shows, Asians are cast as brainy scientists with mechanical personalities while Middle Eastern actors are cast as semi-automatic, bomb-wearing terrorists.
There are opportunities for prominent minority characters to be portrayed by minority actors (like the paralegal in the show Suits) but that role inevitably goes to a white actor. One example of this is the movie “Prince of Persia” with Jake Gyllenhaal playing the role of Dastan, a Persian.
The Writer’s Domain
The writing domain is still majority white who may be more comfortable writing for more Caucasian roles. However, the tide is slowly turning; women and racial minorities are making strides. Between 2000 and 2012, the number of working minority writers more than doubled. While it’s still fewer than 20 percent, those shows are gaining viewers. Shonda Rhimes, creator of “Grey’s Anatomy” and the highly rated show “Scandal,” is a prime example of the shift.
Tyler Perry and Eva Longoria, producer of the new Lifetime show “Devious Maids,” are not only making strides, but are also creating more positively portrayed minority characters, for both movies and television. No one argues that there isn’t much more that needs to happen but at least the powers that be are realizing that to the whole story sounds better when more than half are writing it.